Our Jewish Roots: Baptism

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.  Genesis 1:1-2

From the beginning, literally, the presence of God has been intimately connected to water.  Water has always been life-giving and fundamental in God's plan for humans, even from the earth's very beginning as God pooled all the waters into a basin so that the dry land could appear. Indeed, the image of God's breath, Ruach, upon the waters of Genesis is both transforming and transfixing.  It is the first action in a plan in which, ultimately, arose the sacred combination of water and word in the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.

Consider, also, the second story of Genesis 2:4-7, in which it was the welling up of a stream that created the clay from which man was formed.  The very idea that water is used by God to give life, or as is said in Exodus 30:20 to prevent death, is exactly why Catholics identify Baptism as the sacrament in which a person's eternal life is made available.  Baptism is the Sacrament of Initiation upon which all other sacraments are able to rest.  When God speaks to Moses and instructs that water be made available to Aaron, Moses' brother and High Priest who was set aside for God's service, God was providing Aaron a way, specifically with the washing of his hands, to approach God at the altar.  Should this way not be made available or used, Aaron would die. 

We can immediately see that this ceremonial hand washing in which God uses the phrase "lest he die," is pre-figuring the baptismal waters that we must experience otherwise we, too, shall die.  Of course the implication is an eternal death of our soul, a forfeiting of heavenly life with God.  Like Aaron, we cannot approach God without this cleansing.  Hence, Jesus' answer to Nicodemus' question, "How can a person once grown old be born again?  Surely he cannot reenter his mother's womb and be born again, can he?"  To which Jesus replied, "Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and spirit." 

From Genesis until John the Baptist, as the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3 "A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!  Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God," God was preparing His people to be saved with the baptismal immersion waters John, who was himself set aside for this purpose, would employ in the Jordan River.  It is worthwhile to note that the term "wasteland" used in Genesis 1:2 is the same term "wasteland" used in Isaiah, lending credence to the fact that until we experience the regenerative waters of baptism, we, too, live in a wasteland. 

John would have used the technique for baptism that was the custom of the day at the mikvah, a full pool of water in which complete physical immersion represented a spiritual renewal and rebirth.  The requirements of a mikvah, specifically, included a capacity of at least 100 gallons of fresh or spring water.  As the earth rose from the basin of water in Genesis so, too, does a person fully immersed in the mikvah waters thus emerge anew.  Certainly just as a child emerges from the life-giving amniotic fluids of his mother ready to live life in and with his family, we emerge from the life-giving waters of baptism ready to live our life in and with Christ. 

 Let's reflect on, however, what "ready" actually means.  Even though the baby has emerged from his mother's amniotic fluids and is "ready" to join the family, this baby will need time that is filled with love, nurturance, support, knowledge, sustenance, and edification until he is ready to be a fully functioning citizen. So, too, when our babies emerge from the baptismal waters, they, also, will need love, nurturance, support, knowledge, sustenance, and edification in the ways of Christ until they are ready to live life as fully functioning Christians.  Baptism is necessary to make them "ready" for their catechesis just as it creates the foundation upon which all other sacraments will build. 

It is exactly for this reason that God calls us to community and why at the heart of our life as Christians is the necessity of family; because within family and then again within community we are able to contribute to the edification of one another and the eventual realization of our lives in Christ.  From the time of baptism until the child is able to comprehend, even in increments, the salvation that is found in Christ, a parent is obligated to contribute wholeheartedly to a child's developing faith.  This is why baptism is the first of the sacraments that we are called to administer to our babies and to our converts.  It creates the foundation, or more appropriately the cornerstone, from which to build our lives as Catholics. It would be negligent to withhold such a gift and would put both the baby and the parents at a disadvantage because baptism brings the Advocate, the Paraclete, with whom the Trinitarian relationship can be built up over the years. 

Admittedly, the faith that is able to save us comes, for some believers, in a specific moment in time but for others of us it is a daily building up and renewing of self through the diligent practice of prayer and a daily interest in producing the fruits of the Spirit.  And although baptism cannot be repeated, the life to which it calls us is most often a daily recommitment, all of which rests upon our initiation into the faith through our baptism.  As Christ says, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved…"  When we baptize our infants, we do so with the realization that this first step allows us then to fill our roles as parents, or guardians, of a life meant for Christ; and we then embrace all of the specifics that the role demands of us, the primary transmitters of the faith.  We become catechists to our children so that they build a relationship with Christ and live with an understanding of the Sacred Traditions of Catholicism. 

Lumen Gentium, promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964, makes known the role of baptism in joining together all who follow Christ, even those not proclaiming their faith as that of Catholicism.  Additionally, Lumen Gentium proclaims the nature of God's call upon the people of the Old Covenant to be established as peoples of His New Covenant, through which baptism is the doorway into this new life.  God answers the gentile's eagerness to be grafted in with the sacrament of baptism.

When John the Baptist drew people to the desert with his call to repent and be baptized, he created the portal in which the Old and New Covenants were joined.  The first prophet to appear in over four hundred years, John fulfilled his father's prophesy ("With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" Luke 1:17) so that we gentiles could take up the mantle of the New Covenant.  Notice, interestingly, the word "ready" in Luke 1:17 in relation to preparation for the Lord.  Baptism and repentance "make us ready" for the Lord, just as that newborn babe emerges from the mother's amniotic fluid "ready" for life.  Not yet fully capable but ready for the process that will be filled with love, nurturance, support, knowledge, sustenance, and edification.

Jewish teaching often considers the desert experience one that allows for clarity of purpose while also representing a cleansing and preparation for things to come.  Exodus is a perfect example of a literal and spiritual desert experience.  For John the Baptist, the desert experience would also have been literal as well as spiritual.  His purpose as forerunner to Christ was crystallized as was the accomplishment of his own spiritual cleansing.  John the Baptist was made "ready" in the desert.

Teshuvah is the Hebrew word that means "to turn around in order to return" while tevilah b'mayim is an immersion in water.  When John the Baptist cried for repentance and baptism he was announcing the need for people to recognize their sinful ways and make a concentrated effort to do an about face, of sorts.  They had to turn around so that they could return.  The visualization is quite clear.  Continuing on their currents paths only led away from God.  God simply was not at the end of the road that they were on.  Once they turned around so that they could return, their return required an immersion in water.  This immersion was the cleansing required after having taken the wrong road.  It allowed them to start new, to start over, to begin again.  When the Catholic Church teaches that baptism washes away original sin, we understand that it is efficacious in removing the stain of the road we were put on as a result of original sin; a road that did not lead to God but led directly away from Him and His presence.  Humankind, having been forever affected by Adam and Eve, would always be required to "turn around in order to return."

During Easter, we are reminded of John the Baptist's call from the desert for repentance and baptism and, in renewing our own baptismal vows, we find strength to continue our journeys with hope and faith in our own resurrection in Christ. 

He Is Risen!  Alleluia!

Cheryl Dickow


Cheryl Dickow is a Catholic wife, mother, author and speaker. Cheryl’s newest book is Wrapped Up: God’s Ten Gifts for Womenwhich is co-authored with Teresa Tomeo and is published by Servant (a division of Franciscan Media); there is also a companion journal that accompanies the book and an audio version intended for women’s studies or for individual reflection. Cheryl’s titles also include the woman’s inspirational fiction book Elizabeth: A Holy Land Pilgrimage. Elizabeth is available in paperback or Kindle format. Her company is Bezalel Books where her goal is to publish great Catholic books for families and classrooms that entertain while uplifting the Catholic faith and is located at www.BezalelBooks.com. To invite Cheryl to speak at your event, write her at Cheryl@BezalelBooks.com.

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